Don't pay the airlines more than you have to

5 Ways to Avoid Airline Baggage Fees

by Jeffrey Trull

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The holiday season is fast approaching again, and many of us will be traveling by plane to visit relatives. And with another season of holiday airline travel comes another round of getting hit with checked bag fees. The easiest advice for avoiding these fees is to simply carry on instead. But not everyone can do that, especially for longer trips or when there are kids involved. But before you let the extra traveling costs ruin your holiday cheer, there's hope for saving some cash. Here are a few tips to help everyone avoid airline baggage fees:

  1. If your bag is close to the size limit, attempt to carry it on. Every airline has a specified limit for the bag you can carry on. These dimensions max out at about 24" x 16" x 10" and 40 pounds on most airlines. But, in my experience, no one actually measures or checks this until you're either at the gate or attempting to put your bag in the overhead bin. If your bag doesn't fit, many airlines will "gate check" your bag, free of charge. If you think your bag might be slightly too big to carry on, wait until an airline employee forces you to check it and you'll often save yourself a bag fee.
  2. Maximize your "personal item." Everyone is allowed to take a carry on bag (see dimensions above) and can also have a personal item, such as a purse or laptop. I bring a backpack as my personal item, and it holds my laptop plus extra items, like books, snacks, and even extra clothing. If you're trying to meet the size limit for a carry on item yet can't fit all of your things in that single bag, your personal item can free up some space. Typically, as long as your personal item can be stored under the seat in front of you, you won't have any problems getting it on. Worst case scenario: you're forced to gate-check your carry-on.
  3. If you must check bags, reduce the number of bags by maximizing the size and weight. If you're a family of five with young kids, it's going to be a pain to try to carry on everything. But that doesn't mean that you have to check five bags and pay five bag fees. Airlines typically allow you to check a bag up to 50 pounds without having to pay an oversize bag fee, which can be hefty. Chances are that not everyone in your family or group is going to bring 50 pounds of stuff each (who wants to lug around that much stuff, anyway?) If your family or travel group has a lot of stuff, combine what you're packing into one or two bags to be checked and save three or four bag fees. Maximize the checked bag limitations and then carry on whatever is left.
  4. Know which airlines don't charge bag fees. Airlines are continually updating their policies and fees. Most domestic carriers that do charge per checked bag charge between $20 and $30 for the first checked bag and even more for each bag beyond that, which means $40-60 extra on top of your ticket to fly round-trip. When booking flights, be mindful of this and pick the lowest price based what it will cost both you and your bags to fly. A simple Google search for your airline's policy will return the price per bag within seconds.
  5. Consider ground shipping items if you're going to need several bags. Prices per bag go up drastically after your first checked bag (and reach ridiculous levels after the second one), so bringing Christmas gifts with you using extra luggage might not be worth it. Consider shipping via UPS or FedEx Ground, especially if your cargo is going to rack up a lot of extra baggage fees. Plus, it could be a lot more convenient and secure than lugging all your bags around the airport, too.

Just because airlines charge various fees doesn't mean you have to end up paying them. It simply means that those that utilize these a la carte offerings must pay for them. Planning ahead and developing a strategy can save you more than a few bucks on bag fees.

Updated November 2016

Jeffrey Trull writes about preparing financially for quitting your job and traveling more on his blog Money Spruce. Check out his plan for leaving a job and running a freelance business from anywhere.

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